Skeleton Barrels Back into Olympics

Mark Sappenfield
Christian Science Monitor
February 21, 2002

Sitting in a room with America's five Olympic skeleton sliders, the question inevitably arises: So what is it like careening down the swerves and straightaways of a bobsled track, head first, feet flailing?

A few try to explain it, and stream of consciousness comments ensue—as fast and dizzying as a gold-medal run. In the end, each concludes, "it's like nothing else."

Finally, Lincoln DeWitt, last season's World Cup champion, offers a colleague's assessment: Imagine driving down a highway at 85 mph., then opening the door and sticking your head out so it nearly skims the asphalt.

The others nod, and you get the feeling that if that were an organized sport, they might give it a try, too. Today, skeleton arrives as the Olympics' newest sport, and its cast of characters is among the Games' most engaging. Perhaps that's no surprise, given the kind of person it takes to hop onto a three-foot-long (one-meter) sled and accelerate to the speed of a locomotive—all while your chin hovers two inches (five centimeters) off the ice.

There is Lea Ann Parsley, the 1999 Ohio firefighter of the year, who saved a mother and daughter from a burning building and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in nursing. There is Chris Soule, who worked as a stuntman in the film G.I. Jane, and counts cliff diving among his past exploits. And there is Jim Shea, the third-generation Olympian who switched from bobsled, in part because he felt—like any normal human being—that it was just too boring.

All say they don't think of themselves as daredevils. Instead, they are missionaries for a sport that was actually a predecessor of bobsled and luge, yet for decades has been all but forgotten by all except a few enthusiasts ensconced deep within the Alps. Now, more than 50 years after it last appeared in the Olympics, it returns as—in some ways—the Games' ultimate thrill ride.

"Everyone has to take at least one run in their lives," says Tristan Gale, more animated and insistent than a grade schooler throwing a slumber party. "You will experience something you have never done before. You finish, and you're eyeholes are huge. It takes days to process it."

Watch one run, and the allure of skeleton is obvious: it's kamikaze style. Although luge is fractionally faster, the fact that skeleton sliders go down head first with no steering mechanism has given it a reputation as the crazy uncle of sliding sports. To some degree, the reputation is warranted.

Shea recounts tales of broken noses and punctured lungs. Parsley, who read about the sport on the Web and had never actually seen it before she took her first run, once applied shoe glue to her face so she wouldn't have to go to a hospital to stitch a cut. Soule wrapped himself in duct tape so his sweater wouldn't be ripped off when he hit the walls.

Indeed, in earlier days, when today's Olympians were new to the sport, skeleton seemed as much a dare as a technical discipline. Technique was an ongoing experiment; steering was an afterthought. Merely making it through a run unscathed was a victory in itself.

'I wasn't going skiing anymore'

"I remember looking up and seeing how much speed I'd gained," says DeWitt about his first run. "The turn looked like a wall, and I remember thinking, 'I have no concept of the physics of what is about to happen.'" At the end, though, undaunted, "I asked if I could get a refund on my season ski pass, because I knew I wasn't going skiing anymore."

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.